Arts, letters, numbers and ethnomusicology; my very liberal arts education

• ~500 words • 2 minute read

I attended Portland State University between 2000 and 2004. Mercifully, they even let me leave with a degree,  empowering me with the faintest notions of employability and ability to make something of myself.

I say mercifully because my studies during that stretch were enviably unfocused. Jazz guitar, graphic design courses aplenty, Arabic, African & Middle East studies, blaxploitation & asian cinema, intro to statistics, the bible and World War II through film, writing for sitcoms,  and a small handful of humanities courses with vague titles like Framing Two Cultures and something about... cultural differences? There was probably an intro to Philosophy course in there as well.

But I learned the undergraduate secret: it's really not so much the courses you take or the degree you emerge with. Rather it's finding those professors that move or inspire you and taking every course they offer. There were two professors I took this approach with and I'm glad — it's highly unlikely I ever would have taken a course on the bible through film or written a paper on traditional Bulgarian choir music for an ethnomusicology course otherwise. Memories from these special professors stay with me even today, some ten years after I've graduated, and have undoubtedly enriched my life.

While perusing the Internet Archive  — One of my favorite sites ever. A treasure trove of public domain media, though a little tricky to navigate — I found a short film from 1947 entitled To Hear Your Banjo Play and remembered my ethnomusicology professor, specifically the course I took on early American music. In the film Pete Seeger takes us through a brief history of the banjo, accompanies a fiddle player during a spontaneous square dance and we even get treated to a Woody Guthrie performance of John Henry.

The very first college course I took was an African music course by this same professor. In fact, believe it or not, something this professor said offhandedly during that class influenced my decision to travel to Nairobi and Zanzibar last year. All I really remembered was that he said the weather was somewhere around 74 degrees year round in Nairobi and that when he landed in Zanzibar the air smelled like oranges plugged with cloves. I also remembered him saying something about getting malaria and how after you get it once it never really leaves you... But I selectively ignored that part.

So, reflecting back on my education, I think dabbling in a little bit of everything and emerging with my Arts & Letters degree — a step to the left of being a General Studies major really, and lovingly referred to as Letters, Numbers, Words & Pictures by my friends — has actually prepared me surprisingly well for what I do now. My day to day work requires knowing a little about a lot and working with people from a wide array of backgrounds and disciplines.

Still wish I'd taken a few more math courses though.